Harold Ross

views updated Jun 11 2018

Harold Ross

Harold Ross (1892-1951) founded the New Yorker and remained at its helm for a quarter century. His idiosyncratic direction molded the magazine, with its blend of urbane wit and moral purpose.

Harold Wallace Ross was born November 6, 1892, in Aspen, Colorado, to George and Ida (Martin) Ross. His father was then in the lead mining industry and later worked at contracting and wrecking. Ross grew up in Salt Lake City and attended high school there, the whole extent of his formal education. At age 13 he went to work as a reporter for the Salt Lake City Tribune. In 1908 he and a friend left town, bumming their way west. Ross made it as far as Needles, California, where he briefly worked as a timekeeper before returning to Salt Lake City.

In 1910 he went back to California in earnest, working as a reporter, first for the Marysville Appeal, then for the Sacramento Union. By 1912 he was in the Panama Canal Zone, employed by the Panama Star and Herald. His itinerant journalistic career continued in New Orleans (for the Item), in Atlanta (for the Journal), and in San Francisco (for the Call). It was at the Call that he earned the nickname "Rough House." He was noted for such exploits as leading a former king of Siam on an incognito tour of the local night life and spiriting an excellent set of wicker furniture from the Danish pavilion at the Pacific Exposition, bestowing it on the local press club.

In 1917 Ross enlisted in the Army's Railway Engineer Corps, but he spent little time in those ranks, volunteering instead to work on Stars and Stripes. He was immediately made editor of that publication. His editorial board included a number of men who were to prove important in his later life, notably the belle-lettrist Alexander Woollcott. While in Paris with the army he married Jane Grant, the first of his three wives. She was a reporter for the New York Times and an ardent feminist. At that time Ross also founded a circle of wits he called the "Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club," which was publicized by Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.) in his New York World column. This cabal was eventually to mutate into the famed Algonquin Round Table.

Founding the New Yorker

Returning to New York, Ross made an unsuccessful attempt to continue Stars and Stripes in peacetime as the Home Sector Magazine, but he soon found himself working on various tasks for the Butterick Publishing Company. In 1921 he became editor of the American Legion Weekly, but he left two years later, feeling that the publication was becoming too politicized. He worked for a year (1924) as editor of the humor magazine Judge. Sometime that year Ross got together with yeast magnate Raoul Fleischmann, with the idea of starting a magazine. The proposal was drawn up in the winter and signed by a group of advisory editors: Ralph Barton, Heywood Broun, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, Rea Irvin, George S. Kaufman, Alice Duer Miller, Dorothy Parker, Laurence Stallings, and Alexander Woollcott. The New Yorker began publication in February 1925.

The cover of that first issue, the work of Rea Irvin, has become familiar to all who read the New Yorker, since the magazine revives it for a late February issue each year. It depicts a Regency dandy, whom humorist Corey Ford dubbed "Eustace Tilley," inspecting a butterfly through a lorgnette. Many of the magazine's features were new and startling, mostly in their insistence on the primacy of the text over the identity of its authors. There was, for example, no table of contents (although one was introduced in 1960 and remains to this day) and bylines appeared—in smallish type—at the end of pieces, rather than following the title. For all its innovation and wit, the New Yorker was not an initial success. Its humor was judged drab in comparison to the hilarity provided by the then-satirical Life and Ross's former vehicle, Judge. Circulation, which began at 15,000 for the first issue, had by that August plummeted to a mere 2,700. This was an impoverished period when, as James Thurber relates, Ross once inquired of Dorothy Parker why she had not come into the office to write a particular piece, and she replied, "Someone was using the pencil."

The New Yorker nearly met its death then, but somehow Ross persuaded Fleischmann to pour more money in, and by and by the publication stabilized. Ross' acquaintance with the members of the Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel did much both in terms of supplying writers and material and in terms of building a legend around the young magazine. The spirit of those famous wits—Parker, Woollcott, George Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Charles MacArthur, Robert Benchley, and Herman Mankiewicz, among others—permeated the New Yorker's style. Ross also had considerable success, both through acuity and luck, in hiring young talent. By the later 1920s he had engaged both James Thurber and E. B. White, who were to be mainstays of the magazine. Thurber, White, and Russell Maloney devised "The Talk of the Town," the magazine's flagship rubric, composed of anecdotes, overheard items, and miniature essays, all unsigned and distinguished by the editorial first person plural. White for many years was in sole charge of the "newsbreaks," the page-bottom items reprinting felicitous misprints and solecisms from other publications. Ross signed up a legion of young cartoonists, including Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Gluyas Williams, Mary Petty, Otto Soglow, and later Charles Addams and William Steig, whose various styles were also to be forever associated with the New Yorker.

Ross the Editor—Ross the Man

In spite of his good fortune in hiring contributors, Ross never really succeeded in finding his ideal managing editor. Such an enormous burden of expectation was placed on this post that its incumbents—who were variously referred to as "Jesuses," "geniuses," and "miracle men"—seldom occupied the chair for more than a few months. The long parade of "geniuses" under Ross included such otherwise famous names as Thurber, Ralph Ingersoll (later editor of PM), Ogden Nash, Joseph Moncure March, and James M. Cain. Ross was a perfectionist and a stickler for accuracy at the same time that he was idiosyncratic and often harebrained. He originated the New Yorker's ironclad fact-checking system (modeled on the one used by the Saturday Evening Post) and insisted on editing all copy and reviewing everything— including advertisements—himself.

Ross was a tall, awkward man who betrayed his western origins even while at the helm of the epitome of metropolitan sophistication. He split infinitives with abandon while enforcing the magazine's grammatical rigor and instituted a prohibition on anything even remotely sexual in implication while talking like the proverbial mule-skinner. He was noted for his "Rossisms," a species of inspired malapropism akin to Goldwynisms. He once exclaimed, "I don't want you to think I'm not incoherent," and one time leaned into a room at the office to enquire of the assemblage, "Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?" Ross had a mobile face; big lower lip; large, uneven teeth; and a mop of hair which, in his early days, stuck straight up, a phenomenon which he claimed to be the result of a stagecoach accident in childhood.

As an editor he was formidable, brilliant, unpredictable, and furiously dedicated. He insisted on making every sentence of copy clear to the least informed reader and could not abide suggestions that seemed contrary to logic. A well-known story concerns his struggle with a Peter Arno cartoon: a shower booth has completely filled up with water, and the man inside, holding his nose, his legs floating upward, tries to get his wife's attention. Ross long resisted publishing the cartoon because, he maintained, even if the door were stuck and the faucets jammed, there would still be a space at the door's bottom through which the water could escape.

Ross's contradictions inspired an odd mixture of exasperation and love in those around him. The English artist Paul Nash told Thurber, "He is like your skyscrapers. They are unbelievable, but they are there." Someone else once said, "His mind is uncluttered by culture. That's why he can give prose and pictures the clearest concentration of any editor in the world." Ross, in fact, was noted for reading few books and being deeply suspicious of high culture. Thurber himself wrote, "The New Yorker was created out of the friction produced by Ross Positive and Ross Negative." The heat produced by this friction was impressive enough to raise the magazine's circulation to some 200,000 by the early 1940s, around that same period establishing the highest advertising revenues of any magazine in the country.

Meanwhile, almost every American writer of note had published in the New Yorker at least once. The magazine was equally shrewd about developing its local talent. Besides Thurber and White, there was the satire of S.J. Perelman, the reportage of Wolcott Gibbs and of Morris Markey, the "cliché expert" casuals by Frank Sullivan, the H*Y*M*A*N*K*A*P*L*A*N saga by Leonard Q. Ross (Leo Rosten), Ruth McKenny's stories of her sister Eileen, Richard Lockridge's tales of Mr. and Mrs. North, and Clarence Day's anecdotes about his father. After World War II the magazine became more serious, but without sacrificing its famous light touch. In 1946 an entire issue was devoted to John Hersey's long article on the bombing of Hiroshima, a major coup and a journalistic milestone. Ross earlier had solved the problem of "miracle men" by establishing a team of managing editors. The "fact editor" who urged Ross to publish Hiroshima was William Shawn, and he was soon to be named Ross' successor as editor-in-chief. After a bout with cancer, Ross died in Boston on December 6, 1951.

Further Reading

Ross never did write the autobiography he promised to call My Life on a Limb. The best source is unquestionably James Thurber's The Years with Ross (1959). Margaret Case Harriman's The Vicious Circle: The Story of the Algonquin Round Table (1951) provides some helpful anecdotes, as does Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker (1975).

Additional Sources

Kunkel, Thomas, Genius in disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1996.

Thurber, James, The years with Ross, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1984, 1959. □